Books that Matter to Patti Digh

pattiNYC“Live like you’re dying – because you are. Each moment is precious, magic.” That wise outlook comes from bestselling author Patti Digh. Patti’s laser-love on living mirrors back in the part of speech that defines her: verb. Her books Life is a Verb and Creative is a Verb have inspired countless people around the globe.

Plus, she’s playing summer camp coordinator for down-to-earth creatives at her own Design Your Life Camp! this year.

She is a true wonder-tracker, and I’m happy to share with you today her insights into the books that matter to her. You’ll learn about Patti’s love of Pippi, her love of Encyclopedia Brown, and her keen insight into challenging fiction. 

Books That Matter is our 8-week series that showcases influential wonder-trackers’ relationships with books that matter to them. We’re featuring people from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. May it inspire you writers, creatives, and thought leaders wanting to write your own books that matter. – Jeffrey


What one book most took off the top of your head (Dickinson on poetry) or was “the axe for the frozen sea within” you (Kafka) or otherwise just changed something profound within you? What did it do for you? Maybe a book that lit you up as a child or that turned you on as a young adult or last week that salved some pain or turned your thinking upside-down.

Oh how I love that phrase from Kafka, “the axe for the frozen sea within you.”

There are several books that come to mind: Pippi Longstocking really did this for me as a child. As an adult: Richard Leider’s Unpacking Your Bags: Lightening Your Load for the Rest of Your Life, about the ways in which we burden ourselves and weigh ourselves down; and James Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games about whether we play to win and end the game (finite games) or play to learn and keep the game going (infinite games).

But the first book that came to mind was William Gaddis’ novel, The Recognitions. It broke me open in ways I can’t fully explain. I was a graduate student at the University of Virginia, in both the English and Art History departments, studying the figure of the artist in fiction, when a professor asked if I had read

The Recognitions.

It opened a new world of intellectual pursuit for me, this big, erudite, difficult book. Gaddis was a genius. It’s not the easiest book to read–it takes effort. His breadth and depth of knowledge is unthinkable–the only parallel I’ve had since is novelist Richard Powers.

Gaddis wrote this book in the 1950s, and it still appears modern. The main conceit–a questioning of what is real and what is forged–is brilliantly done and has implications far beyond the realm of the story itself. In fact, as I answer this question, I am increasingly aware of how much Richard Powers’ novel, The Time of Our Singing, echoes these same conceits with its exploration of sampling.

I think it broke open “the frozen sea” in me because of its bigness: the very thought that a piece of fiction could be so much more was what broke me open. I loved that reading could be such an intellectual pursuit. And I ended up writing my dissertation on it, focusing on near recognitions of reality–a theme that comes up repeatedly in my work now. I have a podcast series called “The Recognitions” for this very reason. Patterns surfacing, the hopes we can recognize our way out of them rather than repeat our way out them. The pursuit of that moment, or the allowing that moment to occur, when we so identify with a work of art or literature that we claim it as our own–those recognitions are so powerful and we move so quickly we hardly claim them, or sit with them.

 What one detail do you still recall from that book? There is a character in the novel who so loves Dostoyevsky that he creates a book jacket for his copy of The Brothers Karamazov out of a paper bag, onto which he pastes a photo of himself in the place where the author photo belongs. That urgent identification with a piece of art–I can recognize it (pun intended). To this day, I have a photo of myself pasted on the back of my copy of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.

The book I imagined/imagine living inside of was Encyclopedia Brown. I loved those books as a kid, trying to solve the mystery by simply listening and being present. I think Encyclopedia and I could have been good friends. Encyclopedia Brown was a mindfulness ninja, he was.

The character I still imagine being or being friends or seeking counsel from is Pippi Longstocking because, like her, I was a little red-headed kid with pigtails when I first read about her. She was strong, funny, quirky, kind, generous, non-conformist, and wise–everything I wanted to be and become. As an adult, I was in Stockholm for a conference in December 2001 and made a pilgrimage to Pippi’s creator, Astrid Lindgren’s, house. Because she was very ill at the time, I simply stood outside her house in the cold for a while in silent thanks, a gratitude vigil. She died a month later.

The kinds of books I am most appreciating or seeking these days are literary fiction and really smart, engaging young adult fiction that’s not just for kids and that expects a lot of its young readers.

I read to my young daughter, Tess, every night for at least 30 minutes at bedtime, and we are blazing through some amazing fiction like Keeper and The Underneath by Kathi Appelt, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson,  Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine, and  Anything but Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin. Those last two feature kids with autism; Tess has just been diagnosed with Asperger’s, so she felt validated by those characters (in terms of novelist Walker Percy’s beautiful work on the concept of validation, a seeing myself in).

In terms of adult literary fiction, I host a 37days Book Club ( and our theme for 2013 is “Women’s Voices.” I’m reading things I have never read before, and might not ever read, and am loving it. One that comes to mind is Margaret Elphinstone’s The Sea Road, a novel based on the real life of Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir, a Scandinavian women of the Viking age who sailed all over the North Atlantic from Iceland to Norway to Greenland and North America, and later on to Europe. Our conversation about it was fascinating–what stereotypes do we hold about Vikings that realizing a woman was among them as an equal was shocking?

I like complex tales that challenge me intellectually and morally. I love reading writing that has been honed and shaped and in which the writer obviously loves the very idea of language as a transmitter of meaning.

I will read anything written by novelist Richard Powers. Anything. He is a genius, and every sentence he writes is a spectacular example of what language can do. His novel about race, time, and music, “The Time of Our Singing,” is so well-crafted. I interviewed him after reading it, and asked if the book itself was built as a piece of music, and it was. He crafted it as a “rondo,” in which (for example) the note “A” is played repeatedly, but sounds different each time because it is juxtaposed with another note. So, in a rondo, that looks like this: AA, AB, AC, AD. In his novel, historical events are placed against different contexts and are recognizable and yet sound different each time we hear them: AA, AB, AC, AD. Genius.

I will also read anything by novelist Marilynne Robinson. Anything. She, like Powers, is a word master. Her novel, Housekeeping, is a wonder.

Roughly what % of books do you read digitally versus in paper? (What’s your preferred reader?) I am in deep, desperate love with the book as object, as a form. I’ve taken many book making classes. I love the tactile, the solid, the deep satisfaction of the book itself. I have the tiniest addiction to typography and paper. I have read a few book digitally, but for me, at least for now, it is about holding a paper vessel in which the words reside, like a ship setting sail.

 In a sentence or two, what’s your forecast for the future of publishing? Traditional publishing is a broken industry whose primary descriptors include slow, elitist, and greedy. The future of publishing is fast, flat, and generous.

What do you hope your patch of the planet gets from your books Life is a Verb and Creative is a Verb?

I hope what my patch of the planet (my audience) gets from my books is a big dose of self-worth, a lot of love and laughter and meaning, and the inspiration to love well, live fully, let go deeply, and make a difference in their tiny and important spin on this tiny planet.

If you had five days off to read books next week, which books would you at last read? 

I love this question! Let’s make this happen!

1. Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons (re-read)
2. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (re-read)
3. Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
4. May We Be Forgiven by AM Homes

5. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (re-read)

The little-known book I most relish and champion is Art & Fear: On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland.And I tell a lot of people about this book as well–Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed by Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman and Michael Patton. The other one that would have to be on this list is Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse. All three were game-changers for me: The first on the creative spirit, the second on change process, and the third on whether we play to win or play to learn.

If I had the time, talent, grit, and support, the book I would write is a series of children’s books about the core concepts I teach in my online courses for adults, and that I write about in my books for adults: playing to learn instead of playing to win; the power of a single intention instead of operating from split intentions; the power of being present instead of distracted; and the power to create rather than the power to acquire, to name a few.

To find out more about Patti, visit 
To find out more about Patti’s Design Your Life Camp! focused on courage, creativity, and community,


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